[A long post. I'm starting to sum up what I've been thinking about this summer. Even though it's long, it's worth reading, because there's some funny bits, especially at the end.]
In the end, Merleau-Ponty hopes to bring us face-to-face with an ontological mystery that appears to lack a solution. This is the mystery of flesh and meaning, the mystery of the two invisibles and the one, endlessly differentiated, visible. It is the mystery Merleau-Ponty finds in Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, of how mute experience becomes, for us, and genuinely, signifying. This is an ancient mystery, and has been dismissed by proponents of two fundamental, and fundamentally dogmatic and erroneous, false solutions. One is called, variously, empiricism, naturalism, realism, scientism: true meanings are faithful copies of original, tangible, fleshy things. The other is known by names like idealism, rationalism, Platonism: true meanings are pure significations that refer to fleshy things. Merleau-Ponty considers Husserl’s attempts at fundamental ontology to be failed efforts to solve the ancient mystery without resorting to either of the dogmatisms. Most of Merleau-Ponty’s commentators consider Merleau-Ponty’s own efforts also to have failed.
What it comes down to, I believe, is the question itself: How does mute experience become genuinely signifying? I have come to think this is the wrong way to frame the question. It belies humanistic and philosophical prejudices; first of all, that experience is mute for us, and has to be “translated” by us to become signifying for us, informs us that experience and meaning or signification are human affairs. (I don’t intend to argue that many intelligent animals devise conceptual apparatus, nor do I intend to talk about dolphins’ language or whales’ songs.)
What is meant by the presupposed notion that experience is mute? What is experience? What does mute mean?
The trope of visible and invisible that Merleau-Ponty deployed in his last, unfinished book is a new metaphor for the ancient mystery. What is visible is the flesh, the sensible/sensing/sensed flesh which is the element of our embodiment, and which chiasmatically folds (nearly) upon itself in the narcissistic relation of intertwining. What is invisible is meaning/signification, and absolute reality in itself. I wrote earlier that there are two invisibles. I mean that there is an invisible conceptual apparatus which is our translation of flesh into words, and that this invisible is founded upon the visible flesh and upon the invisible absolute. I interpret Merleau-Ponty’s visible and invisible in this way because it appears to me that his (failed) solution to the ancient mystery depends on a double founding of our invisible conceptual apparatus. This is because, for meaning/signification to be genuine (and not arbitrary, not scientistic, not dogmatic), it must be both the translation of our fleshy sensuous life, and the meaning of that life. If it is only translation, our conceptual apparatus must be subjective-relative, expressionistic rather than expressive (i.e., of “the things”). If it is only pure meaning, it fails to address subjectivity and perspective. This second-order invisible is language or logos itself. To explain one step further, keep in mind that Merleau-Ponty does not follow Heidegger in saying that die Sprache spricht; language does speak, but we speak the language, and neither language itself nor our speaking suffice to be-speak experience.
In his effort to avoid the binarism of the long tradition of metaphysics, through the flesh, Merleau-Ponty leaves us a bifurcated binary. That is, if the visible and the invisible really name two poles. Re-reading The Visible and the Invisible, and working on evocations of flesh, I’ve become convinced that we don’t need this binary solution. I’m prepared to say that I don’t think experience is mute, and that, whatever it is we’re doing when we speak, it’s not giving voice to voiceless experience.
First, let me say what I think is meant by mute, and why I think it’s incorrect to say that experience is mute. In Husserl’s account, and in Merleau-Ponty’s version, experience is mute because something we undergo in embodied life does not say itself, it just is itself. If I stub my toe, I undergo a fleshy, painful event. The meaning of that event is not identical to that event: I can tell you about it later, or I can (as I am now) simply imagine it or present it as an example, and its meaning, or a meaning, the meaning “experience of a stubbed toe,” still takes place. The meaning is reiterable, can be the object of various phantasy-variations, the theme of bad poetry, and so forth. There you go: “stubbed toe” ≠ stubbed toe. Yet “stubbed toe” must = stubbed toe qua meaning, or else everything we say is gibberish. There is the unspoken “meaning of event of stubbing a toe” in every occasion of stubbing a toe, whether in fleshy presence or in imaginative absent presence.
Here is the humanistic prejudice at work. The presupposition about meaning and experience central to this version of the ancient mystery is that phantasy-variation, bad poetry and so forth, being the kind of activities only human beings do, such reiterable meanings must be our translations of experience. For humans, stubbed toes have meanings as “stubbed toes.” And nobody else means “stubbed toes.” They just have them. Well, we don’t know that, and we have some evidence to the contrary. But more importantly, I don’t think it actually solves the ancient mystery. (Approximately here is where I am omitting any reference to how my cat Alexander could somehow mean “stubbed toe” in his feline way, expressing it, reiterating it, and writing extraordinarily bad poetry about it. I don’t seriously believe any cat could mean “stubbed toe;” and although I’m convinced cats can mean, and express, and as we say have concepts, my argument thankfully doesn’t depend on that. It’s funny, though.)
Undoubtedly, David Hume was wrong about most things, but one thing I think he was partly right about was the relationship between color experience and the ideas we have about color. And he’ll excuse me if I say that by “partly right,” I mean almost entirely wrong without being completely wrong. Recall Hume’s claim that all of our ideas of color come ultimately from our visual experience of colored things. Someone who has never seen color (who is blind from birth, for instance) could never have an adequate or genuine idea of “blue,” no matter how much poetry he or she read about blue things, or how much a sighted person tried to describe blue things (contrasting them with green or red things, metaphorizing, or however else one might try to do this). As for a sighted person who has seen all but one particular shade of blue, Hume’s notion of the relations of ideas explains how that person would in the first place recognize the shade was missing and then have the power to “fill it in” imaginatively. That imagined idea of that shade of blue is not the experience of that shade of blue, and, we could say, is not that blue, but only the imagined idea of it. Why? Because blue, the genuine article, is always blue in the flesh, blue in person. Live, in full color. That is to say, blue is something we just have. We don’t conjure it up. It happens to us. The thrust of the idea of blue comes from blue happening to us.
That’s even more obviously true about stubbed toes, which I expect some people reading this would imagine in extremely visceral and unpleasant ways (assuming you don’t like to stub your toe). If stubbed toes or shades of blue happen to us, and if their meanings as reiterable, imaginable ideas have their origins in happening to us, then, I would like to say, meaning arises from experience itself, from what befalls flesh. Our reiterations of what befalls flesh are less like translations than like echoes. And our experience isn’t mute or dumb, it’s meaningful all the way down. We’ve just made a bizarre assumption that meaning or signifying is something minds do because they have access to language, that is, that whatever sensation is, it isn’t an idea, and whatever experience is, it isn’t self-expressive or self-divulging.
I don’t need language to announce the being of the event of stubbing my toe. I do need flesh, and commingling of flesh.
When I stub my toe, I often blurt out an expletive. “Shit!” I might yell, or “fuck!” Are “shit” or “fuck” how die Sprache spricht my stubbed toe? Does “shit” or “fuck” say “stubbed toe”? The interesting fact is that we have such wonderfully all-purpose and meaningful words for stubbed toes to elicit from us. While “shit” or “fuck” don’t say very much about stubbed toes, they certainly address the event, and are certainly expressive. The other day an aggressive driver cut me off on the freeway at 75 mph. “Shit!” I yelled. “Motherfucker!” Now, this “shit” isn’t the same “shit” as when I stubbed my toe, and yet it still addresses the event expressively. In a way, this is simply another shade of “shit,” which has at least as many gradations as “blue” has. It is meaningful, as you are no doubt aware, because shit happens.